The idea of homes and businesses being supplied by a relentless swarm of delivery drones buzzing over our heads may sound like pie in the sky, but apparently Google wants a slice. After testing drone delivery at an Australian farm last year, the tech giant has laid out its intent to make some money out of what once appeared to be merely a cool toy.
‘Our goal is to have a commercial business up and running in 2017,’ said David Vos, chief of Project Wing, the drone unit at Google’s new holding company Alphabet. Speaking at an air traffic control convention (these exist apparently – presumably there’s espresso on tap), Vos revealed how his firm was working with the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to set up a system to co-ordinate drone flights below 500ft.
The FAA is supposed to come up with its rules early next year (it currently imposes severe restrictions; the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority is more liberal, though it does have a curiously specific prohibition on dropping animals from drones, by parachute or otherwise). But whether this will open the drone floodgates depends on exactly what those rules are. ‘Working with’ regulators is no guarantee they will come up with a workable system.
Presuming for the moment that there will be an efficient framework allowing multiple firms to operate fleets of drones in the not too distant future, how will Google fare? It has serious advantages in mapping, networking and indeed customer experience, so it wouldn’t be the biggest stretch to get into delivery. But surely it faces an uphill struggle against the might of Amazon.
The world’s largest online retailer has billions of dollars in infrastructure and decades of experience in physical logistics. Amazon’s own drone delivery programme is ready to go once the regulatory framework’s in place (i.e. possibly 2016 in the United States), and it’s hard to imagine it won’t do so with all guns blazing.
Its Chinese rival Alibaba has also tested delivery drones around its offices, while German postal giant DHL successfully sent a drone to a remote North Sea island late last year. Even Wal-mart is hoping to cash in on the opportunity, though it might want to think about getting more people actually using its website before it starts building fleets of drones to service it.
All these companies are built on physical logistics – and Google isn’t. Invading their territory even on a new front might will be no easy task. But it’s hard to bet against Google when it has the means (cash, technology, brand) and the need to break its dependency on a single, albeit very lucrative product (search).
That’s what Alphabet is for, after all, and it’s why Google is also branching out into the physical world with driverless cars. In both cases though, it’s easy to get ahead of ourselves. Driverless cars and drones will need to be much safer than what’s currently on offer (e.g. delivery trucks) before customers, regulators, the law and the insurance industry will accept them. For now, keep watching the skies.